PITTSBURGH — They arrived in the NHL at different times, under different circumstances, but soon found a common bond. The result was a career-changing partnership on the ice — and an endearing friendship off it.
Brandon Tanev, Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp became the vaunted "TLC" line, making life miserable for opponents thanks to a blend of size, speed, skill and plenty of smash-and-crash that often tilted the ice in favour of the Winnipeg Jets.
In a way, they became victims of their own success, as the business side of the sport made it impossible to keep everyone under the constraints of the salary cap.
Lowry, a 2011 Jets draft pick out of the Western Hockey League, was locked up to a three-year bridge deal. Copp, a 2013 Jets draft pick out of college, went to arbitration this summer to get a two-year contract. And Tanev, the undrafted free agent signed by Winnipeg in 2015, was lured to Pittsburgh this season with a lucrative six-year extension.
Now they’re back under the same hockey-arena roof, ready to hit the ice for the first time as rivals instead of teammates as the Jets face the Penguins tonight at PPG Paints Arena.
"I think we were such good friends off the ice, and when we came to the rink, we all wanted to play the same style and understood each other really well. I still keep in touch with those guys and it’ll be fun to go against them. I know how hard they play," Tanev said Monday following his team’s practice.
"There’s a lot of good friends out there. (Tonight) when the puck drops, there’s no friends on the ice, you have to go out and play hard."
Tanev played three seasons with the Jets, with the winger notching career highs of 14 goals and 15 assists last season. That essentially priced him out of Winnipeg’s reach, as the Penguins offered him US$3.5 million per season.
He has one assist through two regular-season games with Pittsburgh, which has included having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as his centres.
"I texted (Tanev) that he maybe upgraded his centreman over the summer. It’ll be different seeing him in a different jersey," said Lowry, who is signed for two more years at US$2.9 million. "It’ll be fun. He’s going to skate around and he’s probably going to run into a few of us. It’ll be different, lining up against him, having spent so much time with him the last couple years. But I’m looking forward to it."
The trio spent a few minutes Monday taking a fun trip down memory lane while also exchanging some good-natured ribbing, which included Copp loudly booing as Tanev skated by.
"He’s a good guy to have fun with," said Copp, who will make US$2.28 million this season and next. "We talked a good amount during camp. We had a couple phone calls and some text conversations. He’s always the first guy, when Michigan is losing a football game, to be texting me to make sure that I know."
In addition to the teasing, there’s plenty of mutual respect and admiration between the trio. Copp said he’s thrilled his buddy is getting such a golden opportunity, not to mention the significant pay hike that came with it, even though it meant saying goodbye.
"He’s been back and forth between Crosby and Malkin’s line, so far. He’s a great player, he deserves everything he gets because he’s worked so hard to be where he is. His story is one of the best in the NHL," Copp said.
"Selfishly, you want him on your team because he’s a great player and brings a lot of things that you need to win. You saw the contract that he signed, it’s almost unprecedented for the kind of player that he is. That’s just a testament to how good he is at his job and what he brings on a day-to-day level. He’s the kind of person you want around in your room and I was obviously very happy for him."
Tanev said he’s happy to see Copp playing a bigger role with the Jets, which currently involves centring the second line between Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers.
"I think he’s a great player and he’s done very well in this league so far for himself. A little more opportunity for himself here and he’s done well with it. So I wish him all the best success where he is right now," Tanev said.
With Copp taking on a more offensive role to start the season, Lowry is now centring a shutdown line with Mark Letestu and Gabriel Bourque, a couple of veteran players signed to free-agent deals over the summer to help fill the void left by Tanev.
It’s going to be tough for that trio to even come close to the same level of success.
"I think (the TLC line) really kind of solidified that we had an identity, we kind of knew what we needed to do every night. Kind of stuck to it and played to our strengths. It felt like we really created some chemistry and continued to grow over the years," Lowry said.
Tanev has fit right in with his new teammates, occupying a dressing-room stall beside Crosby and earning high praise for his two-way play.
"He’s been everything we expected we would get when we signed him. He brings a ton of speed, he brings a lot of energy, he’s a physical presence. He’s a good penalty killer. He’s done a real good job for us," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said Monday.
There were many who scoffed at the steep price and term Pittsburgh paid for Tanev, and no doubt, many of those same people are wondering why he’s been put on lines with two of the biggest superstars in the NHL.
Sullivan said it made perfect sense.
"I think our team is a little bit unique in how we utilize some of our players," he said. "We feel like we have a dynamic core of players and then we try to surround those guys with some complementary people that can help them best play their game. And also put those complementary guys in positions where they can also play to their strengths. Tans is one of those guys for us."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Tuesday, October 8, 2019 at 12:22 AM CDT: Adds photo.